No surprises here: not only does alchemy show up over and over as Santiago tries to reach his treasure, it's in the title and everything. (That would be The Alchemist, if you're just joining us.) Of course, this isn't just a literal novel about alchemy, although that would be pretty cool, too. In Coelho's novel, Alchemy stands in for something else: personal evolution.
We first learn about alchemy when Santiago meets the Englishman, who's reading about it while they wait for the caravan to head out. The narrator tells us, "All his life and all his studies were aimed at finding the one true language of the universe. First he had studied Esperanto, then the world's religions, and now it was alchemy" (2.90).
Lumping alchemy in with a universal language and world religion shows us that alchemy is another way of understanding the language of the universe in this novel. And later, the alchemist tells us why:
The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves. (2.184)
Get it? Alchemy is really not so much about being greedy and trying to turn everything you see into gold, like King Midas or Beyoncé, but rather about purifying yourself and your soul. While the alchemists of legends, and the one in the novel, are able to turn any metal into gold, Santiago's lesson is about becoming better in-tune with his heart and the universe. It's like the universe is an alchemist, purifying Santiago until he's a precious metal.
Later on, we get a good look at alchemy's status as universal language when the alchemist uses it to talk about other, unrelated things. For example, at one point he starts going off on pure matter and explosions:
"If what one finds is made of pure matter, it will never spoil. And one can always come back. If what you had found was only a moment of light, like the explosion of a star, you would find nothing on your return."
The man was speaking the language of alchemy. But the boy knew that he was referring to Fatima. (2.467-68)
This is the alchemist version of "If you love someone, set them free." The alchemist tells the boy (and us) that if you find something made of pure matter (Fatima), and that if it is indeed pure, it will never go bad (that is, he can go out into the desert and she'll wait for him). If it's the real deal, you can come and go and it will always be there, sort of like a Twinkie. But if it's just all flash and no substance? It'll be gone as soon as you turn your back.
Okay, now that we've got the basics covered, let's talk about some of the phrases that go along with Coelho's description of alchemy. Get out your dictionary and get ready to make a few entries:
- Personal Legend: This is the King of Salem's phrase, and it refers to a goal or dream. Melchizedek defines it as "what you have always wanted to accomplish" (1.112). According to him, the Personal Legend is practically sacred: "when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth" (1.115). NBD.
- The Soul of the World: Hang on, because this one is even more abstract than the PL. According to the Englishman, when Santiago describes his beginner's luck to him, "That's the principle that governs all things [. . .]. In alchemy, it's called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, that's when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It's always a positive force" (2.166). In other words, the Soul of the World helps you achieve your Personal Legend—but only if you want it badly enough.
- Master Work: This the actual nitty-gritty of alchemy, its magic powers. Santiago learns "that the liquid part of the Master Work was called the Elixir of Life, and that it cured all illnesses; it also kept the alchemist from growing old. And the solid part was called the Philosopher's Stone" (2.183). In case you're wondering, "A small sliver of the [Philosopher's S]tone can transform large quantities of metal into gold" (2.186). Now that's some work we wouldn't complain about having to do.
- The Language of the World/The Universal Language: Santiago starts to notice that there are special methods of communication that exist beyond words and pictures. This language, which can be anything from a hawk's flight to the movement of sheep or the shifting sands of the desert, is called "The Language of the World" In the end, it's what allows him to become the wind, because he can communicate with the desert, wind, and sun.
If this is all starting to remind you of the self-help section in your friendly neighborhood bookstore, that's because The Alchemist is suspiciously similar to a self-help book. Oh, sure, it has a plot, complete with desert warriors and love at first sight. But all this business about alchemy lets us know that the plot isn't what matters: what matters are the symbols, and how we're supposed to apply them to our own lives.